Steve Jobs and the actually usable computer

At a sad time at which the world has just lost Steve Jobs, it is well to reflect on some of the things which he, his passion, and his creations have given us, as now the technical community should take many of these upon its collective shoulders.

A big thing Steve Jobs did for the world was to insist that computers could be usable rather than totally infuriating!

The NeXT was brilliant. The NeXT had (arguably too) many things introduced at once — removable optical storage, Objective C, DSP for sound and movies, Mach kernel, unix for a PC, display Postscript, InterfaceBuilder and so on. Yes, they never got the price down and the optical disks proved unreliable. But Steve and NeXTStep ended up saving Apple, and there must be a lesson that it is worth hanging on to cool things: you never know when they will in fact become mainstream.

The NeXT box when I unwrapped it (in Sept 1990) had automatically set up for me as a naive user a unix mail account, which staggered the local unix gurus who normally had to help users of new unix boxen struggle with sendmail configuration files.

In my default mailbox was an initial welcome multimedia email from Steve, including a Lip Service voice clip about his vision, including “It’s not about Personal Computer .. it’s about *Interpersonal* Computing”. Exactly.

Programming the WorldWideWeb client was remarkably easy on the NeXT. There was already a software module, the Text Object, which was an editable multifont editor. I just had to subclass it to make a hypertext object, and add the internet code. Designing the app’s menus was trivial — just drag and drop with InterfaceBuilder. The code framework of the app was generated automatically. That is a platform: something which allows you to build things which without it would have been possible, but a lot of work.

We almost met once. There was a get-together of NeXT developers in France, and we set up demos at tables around the room. Robert Cailliau and I set up the WorldWideWeb.app on one table. Steve arrived, and started making his way around the tables chatting with each project. He didn’t get to us before he had to leave.

Steve was a champion of usable technology – even sexy technology. Intuitive on the outside and extensible and cool engineering on the inside.

The geeks among us need to be at the same time deeply insistent technically on beautiful, clean, extensible design inside, and utterly impatient as naive end users about the outside.



35 thoughts on “Steve Jobs and the actually usable computer

  1. Usable & sexy technology – that is what we need more of. I hope Steve has inspired a generation of creators to continue this pursuit.

  2. Steve’s contributions will be forevermore.
    Follow his example and do even better!
    Rest in peace.

  3. I wonder what would have happened if Mr. Jobs had seen the WorldWideWeb.app at work.

  4. I had the thought earlier today that the Wright Brothers didn’t invent the airpline (that was Lilienthal in Germany about ten years earlier) — they just succeeded in making one that really flew. So with Jobs and Wozniak and the personal computer.

  5. This is really informative about Next computers, particularly for those of us that don’t know. His thoughtfulness on what the consumer wants is, in my view, what made Steve so genius. I will miss him very much.
    ….written on a MacBook

  6. Wow! Why does 1990 seem just like yesterday? It’s amazing how many advancements we have seen in the past 20+ years. It’s also amazing that so many of the advances can be traced back to a small handful of people… Steve and Tim included.

  7. Tim, thanks for this simple, spot-on eulogy. I’ll take the liberty of repeating here a similar memorial message I just tweeted:

    Where others figured out how people could work with computers, Steve Jobs led Apple to figure out how to make computers work for people.

    Less eloquent than your post, but it fit in 140—not that I would presume to believe that 140 characters could sum up all that Steve Jobs meant to the world.

  8. Thankfully, “utterly impatient” naive users are a minority. Most people have some amount of curiosity and desire to use a well designed device. Steve Jobs designed products that reward curious customers richly.

  9. Steve just missing a demo of WorldWideWeb sounds to me like a potential second Xerox PARC moment missed!

    I spent a lot of time at school playing with Hypercard, which was a truly awesome way to learn, especially for its day. It had the idea of making links from card to card. The big thing it missed was linking to somebody else’s card, on another machine in another school, city or country.

    That’s so cool that your (the) first web server was a NeXT box

  10. Are you saying that the first successful communication between a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) client and server via the Internet was developed on a box that Steve built? If so, that is just one more difference he made.

  11. The true legacy of any genius is the ideas left behind to inspire the rest of us. I’m inspired, Steve. Thank you.

  12. Few people realize the role the NeXT played in the development of the web and how the inclusion of free stuff like “Mathematica” and the Interface Builder took years of work from the shoulders of its developers.

  13. I get tired of the ‘usable computer’ comments about Apple. I support both OSx and Windows. Both users have issues with their machines. There is no clear winner. The only difference is the personality type the OS appeals to, nothing else.

  14. I forwarded the link to this, to several irrational Apple-haters. The key line is, ‘usable instead of totally infuriating!’

    Our digital world would look very different had Jobs not come along. Sooner or later, someone would have discovered penicillin; someone would have discovered the subatomic particles. Left to its own devices, I gravely doubt that the computer industry – where user interfaces were created by engineers or not even thought about very much (“if you can’t handle a command-line prompt, you’ve got no business using a computer!!!”), where the companies were run by MBAs and bean-counters – would have come up with iMacs, iPods, iPhones, iPads, iTunes or the equivalent of Apple stores.

    I love my computers, rather than merely tolerating them. Thanks, Steve. We were privileged to live in a world that had you in it.

  15. “free stuff like Mathematica”

    Really? Mathematica was free on the NeXT? Today it’s $295 for a hobbyist license.

  16. Tim, thanks for sharing this story. The mind blogges at what did happen and what could have happened.


  17. Tim, thanks for this fitting tribute to a truly inspirational, innovative man with a love of the mass market.

  18. Thanks for this beautiful tribute to the usability, elegance and empowerment of others in both Jobs’ NeXT vision and TBL’s Web, which it helped make happen.

    The contrast between the two creations (and their creators) is fascinating, too: One based in high-end consumer products embodying elite design, the other extending open standards, and the combination bringing so much that is wonderful “for the rest of us.”

  19. I agree that at this moment we should focus on what Steve Jobs did and he should be remembered for his contributions. But to me, the computer, GUI and mouse didn’t made sense till the advent of Internet thanks to TBL! Coming from India, I admire the opensource gurus like Richard Stallman or Linus Trovalds or James Gosling because that brought internet to the masses with the like of LAMP or Java. Several govt departments in India were able to support acts like RTI (Right for Information) with the lowcost x86 servers and opensource software. In the hindsight it was blessing that IBM never thought of copyrighting IBM PC that helped mass clones and made it a commodity. In India mobilephone revolutionary penetration that started in 2003 inspite of being the low/middle income economy (as per worldbank stats) was because of low tariff and also low cost mobiles from Nokia phones which had basic features and high grade. India media has dubbed the term Nirma, Nokia and Nano(Tata Nano). In 2003 the Nokia phone was costing $50 dollars making it affordable to masses. With all above, I think Steve Jobs deserves the highest praise and commendation for DTP – Desktop Publishing which was revoluntarily and I have seen the practical use of it in India in 1990s. But I am afraid Steve wanted to end the “free internet” with subscription model that started with iPad.

  20. Tim, thanks for sharing this interesting piece of history. As Steve said, we must be able to connect dots from the past and learn from our experience. Best, -Oleg

  21. Tim, did this gathering of Next developers happen at the same time as an AppleExpo? did it take place several times?
    I’am asking, because I once visited such a meeting and got introduced to Objective-C and Interface Builder by some guys there. It was just incredibly great. And also, I saw for the first time the ability to drag a window with double-buffering, refreshing as well what was behind it and its content (a movie in that case). I remember these quite clearly as it was so insanely great at that time.
    Now learnig that I might have met SJ there make it just more incredidle.

  22. The global Steve Jobs worship has become very tiresome and often irrational. I strongly disagree with his desire to control how people use their computers.

    As an aside, the creator of the web is a more important person than Steve Jobs.

  23. Really? Mathematica was free on the NeXT? Today it’s $295 for a hobbyist license.

    Charlie, look up the retail price of a NeXT cube in 1991. :-)

  24. i started my turbo NeXTstation (33mhz), reset my password (don’t remember since that time) to just say thank you Steve Jobs for the foundation you created with your incredible team at that time (Object oriented software).

    Thank you Tim.

    (i hope Omniweb could send this message)

  25. He actually was a technical giant supposed to have served the world longer God rest his soul in eternal peace.

  26. I got on the Mac bandwagon in 1985 with the FatMac 512K. Later, i got myself a MacPlus and hotrodded it to 4MB RAM, a 40MB SCSI HS and internal fan. That box still runs. And, thanks to the human interface standards that the Mac team and NeXT developers followed, when I got to use a NeXT for my first sysadmin job, the key commands let a n00b look like a pro.

    While I have enjoyed many aspects of the IT industry over the last 20 years, my love of NEXTSTEP/OpenSTEP on black hardware, PARC, PA-RISC and even x86 eclipses it all. Thanks to Steve, Avie, TBL and everyone that made the NeXT community something revolutionary, and which is still improving our world 24 years later.

  27. I have been fortunate to have owned a Mac Plus, bought new for $2600. Aslo the Mac IIci, IIfx, NeXT Cube (still have and works), OpenSTEP on SPARC, HP and Motorola, First generation Titanium Powerbook, and unibody MacBook Pro.

    The height of innovation and pushing the evenlope was the NeXT. I was doing OpenSTEP support for the government when Apple acquired NeXT in 1997. I wish I still had the $6 AAPL stock as well…. Steve and the engineering teams he drove to greatness changed the world for the better. I wish 2011 Windows networks worked half as well as a NEXTSTEP NetInfo network did back in 1993.

  28. Tim,

    Had Steve Jobs met you and seen your code for WWW years ago…
    …He probably would’ve been blown-away like he was when he saw the GUI at Xerox/PARC.

    … and gone full-steam on creating his own “Mosaic browser”, 2-3 years earlier.

    He probably would’ve tried to entice you to work for him.

    Who knows how history would’ve turned out.

  29. Hey Tim,

    Thanks for this emotional insight into a more or less technical job.

    To me it’s astonishing that even after this comment, some people don’t get it. I understand that in certain circumstances beauty is a luxury good that can’t be gone after in the first place. If you’re fighting for basic freedom and against poverty, beauty might fall behind or might be forgotten in favour of urgent political goals.

    But this forgetting of beauty as a natural goal, a means of motivation and a strong point of giving sense to life is the basis of totalitarian systems and fashistic ideologies or attitudes and sad and dark times.

    So, Narg, wibas and Anon, if you can’t see or don’t want to see why the described systems were so special and infused this feeling of beauty back in those days (today Windows might look the same, in the early 90’s it so didn’t), you’ll probably won’t find useful goals in your own life and work either. And you should change this, if you can afford to do so.

  30. Nothing will ever equal the thrill when I unwrapped and unpacked my Apple IIC (portable) computer, way down South, here in sunny South Africa.
    Then, due to politics, my machine was orphaned and after a few weeks no new software could be obtained any more.
    I am back on an iPhone now, and the gene pool is still sound.

    Requiascat in Pacem, Steve (but not Apple!)

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